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Always losing, and proud of it

Why do fans stay committed to awful teams?

104 years is a long time to lose. Just ask the Chicago Cubs.

Logically, one might think that after watching a team be defeated for years and years (and years and years), a fan would give up hope, wash their hands of their fandom, and switch their viewing allegiances to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, or to a more successful team. After all, in a society obsessed with success, no one likes to be defeated.

Yet, despite 104 years without a World Series win, the Cubs are doing pretty well in terms of filling their stadium’s seats. In 2011, they drew over 3 million fans to their stadium, and averaged 37,259 fans per game – not far off from a sell- out, every game, despite a 71-91 regular season record. The Boston Red Sox, during their 86-year championship drought, didn’t see Red Sox Nation shrink (in fact, it probably became more fanatic). Buffalo Bills (a football team most famous for losing four straight Super Bowls) fans still pay more than a hundred dollars to buy new jerseys; Leyton Orient (an English soccer club that plays in the third tier) fans still watch YouTube clips from their 2006 season (when they played in the fourth tier). There are hundreds of teams whose club names are synonymous with losing, and most of them seem to be doing pretty okay in the area of moral support.

There are the moments where it doesn’t seem possible to endure it anymore. Take my grandfather, for instance: a lifelong Red Sox fan, he swore he would never return to Fenway Park after Buckner lost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series. But ask him the score of last night’s game, and he inevitably will have watched it. Ask him the roster, and he will be able to rattle it off.

So why do these fans stick it out?

Tennis star Maria Sharapova once said that “fans always root for the underdog.” A 2007 study out of the University of South Florida (USF) investigated this very phenomenon. In proposing hypothetical sporting and Olympic matches, researchers found that their test subjects tended to favour the underdog in unevenly matched situations.

Note the ‘hypothetical’ in the USF scenarios. The romanticized triumph of an underdog clawing their way to the top may be appealing, but Gordon Bloom, associate professor of Sport Psychology at McGill, says that’s not what draws fans of long-suffering teams.

“One of the things that you get from sports is a strong affiliation or emotional tie,” Bloom explained in an interview with The Daily. “Whether you’re an athlete or a fan, sports is one domain where passion and loyalty come into play.”

That loyalty is a key part of fandom. “Sports fans stick with their team win, lose, or, draw,” Bloom said. “I think that’s just part of the sports culture that you stick with your team through thick and thin.”

This culture is why a ‘fair-weather fan’ – someone who only supports a team while it’s on top, or switches to rooting for a more successful team – is an insult: a real fan sticks with their identity no matter what happens. Supporting a losing team is a proud show of undying loyalty, and demonstrates an ability to weather the pain of constant disappointment – a contest of fandom, if you will – but Bloom says that being the underdog doesn’t gain fans.

If you’re a fan who’s drinking post-playoffs to drown sorrows rather than popping champagne, blame your hometown and your parents. Bloom sees sports fandom as generally dependent on one of two things: geography and family ties. “I’m not as convinced that [supporting a team is] a choice that people make as much as you’re sort of brought into this world in a certain place and you choose to follow that either because geography or because of family lineage…people in sports don’t look at [the] win-loss record when they’re forming a bond with their teams.”

Who we support is intrinsically linked to our identity: just as we can’t change where we’re from, or what games our parents raised us on, we can’t change the pride and intimacy of supporting a team that resonates with a crucial aspect of who we are. And so, despite the heartbreak, we bounce back for another season, promising ourselves and our peers that this is the year.

After the tears, cursing, hair-pulling, and maybe some TV-breaking, long-suffering fans can be assured of one thing: as rare as our victories are, they are that much sweeter when they arrive. Sure, it might be nice to win a championship every few years, but when you’ve spent decades of your life waiting for it, your party’s going to be a lot more fun.